After this week’s Kavanaugh hearings, I have begun re-remembering pieces of a #MeToo moment in the life of my sister, Daun Kendig. Right now, I am sure of all the pieces, but I am struck by how we have been acquiring vocabulary for these experiences, how, at the time, we didn’t even have the words for it.
I think of my sister Daun every day, but especially this week. She was my best friend from the time she was born, when I was 21 months old, until she died of cancer at age 49. So I am telling this for her.
Although she was my little sister, our relationship was more that of twins. I was a bit shorter, and we dressed similarly and even identically at times and were often taken as twins in public and sometimes confused when we were in high school, though I was never able to forget she was prettier, thinner, and more popular. She had a lot more dates than I did.
On one of those dates, with a boy who was then her steady boyfriend, she went with him one evening to watch TV at his parents’ house, and during that time, he forced himself on her, as we say now. (I think: do people say this?) I don’t recall what we said then. According to her account, she fought back, but felt hopelessly pinned. He was a star football player and much bigger than Daun, who was five foot two and a hundred ten pounds at the time. She felt terrified and helpless and started to yell. Then, as she struggled, she heard his parents’ car pull into the drive. And he heard the car. He pulled away from her and got up, and she felt relieved and frightened at the same time.
I don’t know when she told me this. I was away at college that year, and though we shared a lot of letters—not so many phone calls, which were so very expensive in 1970—I know she did not write the account to me, but told me the next time we were together. She also said that she told my mother, whose response shocked us both. My mother, who was normally supportive of her four children, said, “Well he is a football player. They are trained to take what they want.”
That was supposed to explain it all. My mother liked this football player, liked the idea of my sister’s dating a football player, and to her dying day, Mom stayed close friends with man and his wife. My mother’s response is the one part of this story I do not comprehend to this day. But I hear it these days when I hear people say, “He was only seventeen,” and “That’s how teenage boys are.”
I do not recall what I said to Daun, but I know I was much more supportive than my mother. And yet, I didn’t tell her to report it, to tell his parents, to tell anyone else. Rape was one thing, but this was—what? We didn’t even have a way to describe it, except in the long, prolonged descriptions like “he pressured her to do it, even though she didn’t want to do it.” (We didn’t even say, “He forced himself on her, even when she was protesting that she didn’t want sex.”)
One difference between my sister and many women of the time, is that having lived through it, Daun took charge. This is not to say she “owned it,” as we would say now. I don’t recall that she ever talked to anyone else about her personal experience. However, she broke up with the boy, and within a few months, she was in college and on the state university speech team where she used the opportunity to research, write, and deliver a speech on rape in the U.S., a topic which was not all that hot in the early 70s, though coming into its own with the publication of Ms. magazine, which did cover the topic, and from which, I recall, she got some of the statistics she used in her speech. As she was preparing the speech, she and I talked a lot about rape, but it seemed at such a distance then. She had escaped it, she hadn’t been raped. She was okay, it seemed. She gave the speech a lot.
Lately, I have struggled with the #Me Too Movement. In counterpoint to Daun’s experience, I have seen women’s abuse of the sexual harassment claim. I have seen them engage in sex freely to get what they wanted and then claim abuse if they didn’t get what they wanted. In a recent case, a colleague in academia recently saw one of his first-year male student’s life destroyed when a male classmate came forward to say he was being sexually harassed in emails by the other male. Then a female student came forward, saying the same: she was receiving sexual harassment in emails from the first man. The deans all believed her, and when they questioned the supposed perpetrator fairly aggressively, he dropped out of school. The dean had stated that he would be punished to the full extent campus policy when they could prove it.
Once the student had dropped out, mid-semester, however, the police discovered that the IPO that was used for the emails belonged to the woman, who was harassing herself and the other member of the class, seemingly for the drama of it all. As nearly as my friend, the class professor, can tell, once the male student’s innocence was discovered, no one went looking for him. He never returned to class. And no punishment was levied against the woman, who, the dean explained “was just joking!!” The male student, was, by the way, from a working class minority family, whereas the woman had parents in high places.
So I know the whole dynamic of charges in sexual abuse is so very wide open to abuse on both sides.
I have continued, awkwardly, to try to define what happened to my sister. Back then we called it “almost raped,” but that didn’t seem an apt term. It seemed either you were raped, or you weren’t, and what was then referred to as “almost raped” seemed almost like a contradiction. The term “sexually harassed” and “physically abused” were years from coming into being, in our lives.
Then, this week, on Facebook, of all places, someone added some perspective for me. A male friend posted: “To me, the force of the word ‘rape’ should be never be neutered in a context where it's not defined as a crime. If you're talking about two hormonal teenagers going at it, and then one of them stops and the other wants to keep going, but then stops as well . . . I get that--that's not ‘attempted rape.’ To me, any version of the word ‘rape’ is the same as any version of ‘murder.’ There's no ‘mild’ rape or ‘mild’ murder.”
His friend replied, “Dude if I come at you with a gun threatening to shoot you, I’ll be tried for assault with a deadly weapon and for attempted murder…. If a boy man handles your daughter and it’s only through happenstance that she gets away, that’s an attempted rape.”
“It’s only happenstance that she gets away,” struck me as the phrase I’d been needing to understand what had happened to Daun. My sister trapped in the basement, the parents’ car pulling in the drive. Ford on the bed, a male leaping and everyone falling off. Making a run for it. Happenstance.
However, the analogy is not perfect. Not everyone who points a gun is tried for assault, for murder. Not every teenage sexual fumbling is attempted rape. But if she is trying to get away, and it's only happenstance that she does, she needs to know that is attempted rape.